Writers frequently ask about prologues. They've heard that prologues are verboten, and are justifiably confused because lots of published books have prologues. So what have you all heard about prologues? Do you think a prologue prejudices editors against your partial? Under what circumstances do you think prologues work? What distinguishes a prologue from a Chapter One?
Also, are prologues common in the genre or fiction category you mostly write in?
I think genre really matters. A prologue is common in thrillers and suspense novels, but much less so in romance. Why? Well, I suspect it's because the past matters more in thrillers and suspense. Often the prologue shows an event in the past which will have some repercussion in the "forestory," the story that starts in Chapter One. A good prologue usually poses some question ("Who killed Sandy?" "Why did Joe's mother run away?") that the story itself answers.
Successful prologues are usually remote in time from Chapter One. That is, Prologue doesn't take place in May and Chapter One in June-- if there's not a passage of time there, why not just have the prologue as the first scene in the chapter?
Prologues are, however, somehow linked to the story. This should be a no-brainer, but I've seen contest entries and submissions where the prologue might be exciting but doesn't connect to the story. There should be a real link-- a common character, setting, or recurring event (like this is the first murder of the serial murderer at work in the story proper). That link doesn't have to be immediately clear in the first few chapters. But I know I for one get annoyed when even halfway through a book, I don't know what the link is. Well, actually, by that time I've probably completely forgotten the prologue events. So think about ways to link even earlier chapters to the prologue, maybe with keywords or setting. Say the heroine walks over a bridge on her way to work, and we know, even if she doesn't, that in the prologue, her mother had huddled under that bridge to shelter from a storm.
Keep in mind that the editor or agent who asks to see a partial, maybe the first few chapters, isn't likely to have enough material to make complete sense of the prologue or judge whether it works. So consider making a big point of linking it in the synopsis-- like say you summarize the prologue, then introduce the story-proper with something like, "Eight years later, the repercussions of this murder are still being felt in Whelanton."
Also consider how the partial (chapters) can give the editor or agent a bit more sense of the connection, maybe using datelines at the start of the prologue and then again at the start of Chapter One, like:
Lake Limberlost, Wisconsin
University of Wisconsin, Madison
That way we know that it's almost 10 years after the prologue, and we're still in Wisconsin.
Also think about the tone shift between the prologue and Chapter One. If you have a very dark prologue with a brutal murder, for example, a lighthearted Chapter One might be jarring to the readers.
What else? I'd say the prologue should probably be short, just a few pages. It's NOT a chapter, after all, so shouldn't be as long as a chapter. Should it just be one scene? Probably.
Other thoughts about prologues? Have you ever written one? As a reader, do you like books that start with prologue? What makes a prologue feel successful to you?